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He stopped in front of my bed and quietly laid the staff he was holding on the ground. "Do you love him?"
I looked into Aspen's deep eyes, barely visible in the dark. For a split second, I didn't know what to say.
He ripped back my blankets in a move both graceful and violent. I should have protested, but I didn't. His hand was behind my head, pushing my face to his. He kissed me feverishly, and every good thing in the world fell into place. He didn't smell like his homemade soap anymore, and he was stronger than he used to be, but every move, every touch was familiar.
"They'll kill you for doing this," I breathed in a brief moment when his lips traveled to my neck.
"If I don't, I'll die anyway."
I tried to work up the will to tell him to stop, but I knew any attempts would be halfhearted. A thousand things about this moment felt wrong-that we were breaking so many rules, that as far as I knew Aspen had another girlfriend, that Maxon and I had some sort of feelings for each other-but I couldn't care. I was so angry with Maxon, and Aspen felt so comforting, I just let his hands travel up and down my legs.
I marveled at how different it felt. We'd never had so much s.p.a.ce before.
Even with the distraction, I could feel everything else swarming in my head. I was angry with Maxon, angry with Celeste, even angry with Aspen. h.e.l.l, I was angry with Illea. As we kissed on and on, I started crying.
Aspen kissed me through it, and soon some of the tears were his, too.
"I hate you, you know?" I said.
"I know, Mer. I know."
Mer. When he touched me like that, called me that name, I felt like I was a world away. Upset as I was, Aspen felt like home.
We went on for nearly fifteen minutes before he remembered himself.
"I have to get back, the guard doing rounds will be expecting me."
"There are guards who do rounds at random. I might have twenty minutes, I might have an hour. If it's a short round, I have less than five minutes."
"Hurry!" I urged, hopping up with him to help him straighten his hair.
He grabbed his staff, and we ran across the floor together. Before he opened the door, he pulled me in to kiss me again. It felt like pure sunlight was traveling down my veins.
"I can't believe you're here," I said. "How did you end up on the palace guard?"
He shrugged. "Turns out I'm a natural. They fly everyone to this training place in Whites. America, it was covered in snow! Nothing like the flurries we get back home. All the new guards are fed and trained and tested. There are shots, too. Don't know what's in them, but I grew really fast. I'm a solid fighter, and I'm smart. I tested the highest in our cla.s.s."
I smiled with pride. "Not surprised by that at all." I kissed him again. Aspen had always been too good to lead the life of a Six.
He opened the door and checked the hallway. It looked empty.
"I have so much to tell you. We need to talk," I whispered.
"I know. And we will. It's going to take some time, but I'll be back. Not tonight. I don't know when, but soon." He kissed me again, so hard it almost hurt.
"I missed you," he whispered into my mouth, and went back to his post.
I walked back to my bed in a daze. I couldn't believe what I'd just done. Part of me-a very upset part-felt like Maxon deserved this. If he wanted to spare Celeste and humiliate me, then I certainly wouldn't be a part of the Selection much longer. If she could find a way around the rules, there was nothing to stop me anymore. Problem solved.
Suddenly worn out, I fell asleep in moments.
THE NEXT MORNING, I WOKE feeling a little guilty. Frightened even. Just because I didn't return Maxon's ear tug didn't mean he couldn't come to my room any time he wanted. We so easily could have been caught. If anyone had any idea what I'd done...
It was treason. And there was only one way the palace dealt with treason.
But another part of me didn't care. In the hazy moments of waking, I relived every look in Aspen's eyes, every touch, every kiss. I missed that so badly.
I wished we'd had more time to talk. I really needed to know what Aspen was thinking, though last night had given me some clues. It was just so unbelievable-after trying so hard to not want him-that he might still want me.
It was Sat.u.r.day, and I was supposed to go to the Women's Room, but I just couldn't stand it. I needed to think, and I knew that wouldn't happen in the endless chatter floating downstairs. When my maids came, I told them I had a headache and would be staying in bed.
They were so helpful, bringing me food and cleaning the room as quietly as possible, that I almost felt bad for lying to them. I had to, though. I couldn't face the queen and the girls and possibly Maxon while my mind was so solidly fixated on Aspen.
I closed my eyes but did not sleep. I tried to clear up just how I felt. Before I got very far, though, there was a knock at the door. I rolled over, catching Anne's face as she silently asked if she should answer it. I sat up quickly, straightened my hair, and gave her a nod.
I prayed that it wouldn't be Maxon-I was afraid he'd be able to read my crimes on my face-but I wasn't prepared to see Aspen's face walking through my door. I felt myself sit up taller and hoped my maids didn't notice.
"Pardon me, miss," he said to Anne. "I'm Officer Leger. I'm here to speak to Lady America about some security measures."
"Of course," she said, smiling brighter than usual and gesturing for Aspen to enter. In the corner I saw Mary nudge Lucy, who let out a tiny giggle.
When he heard the sound, Aspen turned toward them and tipped his hat. "Ladies."
Lucy ducked her head and Mary's cheeks looked redder than my hair, but they didn't answer. Anne, though she also seemed taken by Aspen's good looks, was put together enough to speak at least.
"Shall we leave, miss?"
I considered this. I didn't want to seem too obvious, but some privacy would be nice.
"Only for a moment. I'm sure Officer Leger won't need me for long," I decided, and they whisked right out of the room.
Once they had disappeared behind the door, Aspen spoke. "You're wrong, I'm afraid. I'm going to be needing you for a very long time." He winked at me.
I shook my head. "I still can't believe you're here."
Wasting no time, Aspen took off his hat and sat on the edge of my bed, setting his hands so our fingers just barely touched. "I never thought I'd count the draft as a blessing, but if it gives me the chance to apologize to you, I'll be forever grateful."
I was stunned into silence.
Aspen looked deep into my eyes. "Please forgive me, Mer. I was so, so stupid, and I've regretted that night in the tree house since the second I climbed down the ladder. I was too stubborn to say anything and then your name got called... I didn't know what to do." He stopped for a second. It looked like he had tears in his eyes. Was it possible that Aspen had been crying for me the way I'd been crying for him? "I'm still so in love with you."
I bit my lip, holding back my tears. I needed to be sure of one thing before I could even think about this.
"What about Brenna?"
His face fell. "What?"
I gave an unsteady breath. "I saw you two together in the square when I was leaving. Is that over?"
Aspen squinted his face in concentration then burst into laughter. He covered his mouth with his hands and fell backward on the bed before popping up and asking, "Is that what you think? Oh, Mer, she fell. She tripped and I caught her."
"Yeah, the square was so full, people were standing on top of one another. She fell into me and made a joke about being a klutz, which you know is true for Brenna even on a good day." I thought about the time she seemed to just fall off the sidewalk for no apparent reason. Why hadn't this occurred to me before? "As soon as I could get free, I was rushing to the stage."
I remembered those moments, Aspen's desperate attempt to get close to me. He hadn't been faking at all. I smiled. "And just what were you planning on doing once you got there?"
He shrugged. "I didn't actually think it out that far. I was considering begging you to stay. I was prepared to make an idiot out of myself if it meant you wouldn't get in that car. But then you looked so mad ... and I get why you were." He let out a sigh. "I just couldn't do it. Besides, maybe you'd be happy here." He looked around the room at all the beautiful things that were temporarily considered mine. I could see how he would think that.
"Then," he continued, "I thought that I could win you over once you came home." His voice seemed suddenly tinged with worry. "I was sure you'd want out and come home as soon as you could. But ... you didn't."
He paused to look at me, but mercifully, didn't ask just how close Maxon and I were. He'd seen some of it already, but he didn't know that we kissed or had secret signals, and I didn't want to have to explain that.
"Then there was the draft, and I figured it would be unfair to even think about writing. I could die out here. I didn't want to try to make you love me again and then..."
"Love you again?" I asked incredulously. "Aspen, I never stopped."
In a swift but gentle move, Aspen leaned in and kissed me. He put his hand to my cheek, holding me to him, and every minute of the last two years flooded my body. I was so grateful they weren't lost.
"I'm so sorry," he mumbled between kisses. "I'm so sorry, Mer."
He pulled away to look at me, a small smile on his perfect face, his eyes asking exactly what I was thinking: What do we do now?
Just then, the door opened, and I was horror-struck as my maids took in Aspen's closeness.
"Thank goodness you're back!" he said to them as he pushed his hand more firmly against my cheek before moving it to my forehead. "I don't think you have a temperature, miss."
"What's wrong?" Anne asked, worry falling over her face as she raced to my bedside.
Aspen stood. "She started saying that she felt funny, something about her head."
"Is your headache worse, miss?" Mary asked. "You look so pale!"
I bet I did. No doubt every drop of blood had dashed away from my face the moment they saw us together. But Aspen, so cool under pressure, had fixed it in a split second.
"I'll get the medicine," Lucy piped in, scurrying to the bathroom.
"Forgive me, miss," Aspen said as my maids went to work. "I don't wish to disturb you any more. I'll come back when you're feeling better."
In his eyes I could see the same face I'd kissed a thousand times in the tree house. The world around us was completely new, but our connection was the same as ever.
"Thank you, officer," I said weakly.
He went to leave, giving me a small bow.
Soon my maids were all stirring around me, trying to heal a sickness that wasn't even there.
My head didn't ache, but my heart did. The longing for Aspen's arms was so familiar, it was like it never left.
I woke to a hard shake on my shoulders from Anne in the middle of the night.
"Please, miss, you have to get up!" Her voice was frantic, worn with terror.
"What's wrong? Are you hurt?"
"We're under attack. We have to get you to the bas.e.m.e.nt."
My mind was groggy; I couldn't be sure I was hearing her right. But I noticed behind her that Lucy was already crying.
"They're inside?" I asked in disbelief.
Lucy's fearful wail was all the confirmation I needed.
"What do we do?" I asked. A sudden adrenaline spike woke me up, and I jumped out of bed. As soon as I was standing, Mary was pushing my feet into shoes and Anne was putting a robe on me. All I could think was North or South? North or South?
"There's a pa.s.sage here in the corner. It'll take you straight to the safe room in the bas.e.m.e.nt. The guards are there waiting. The royal family should already be there and most of the girls, too. Hurry, miss." Anne pulled me out into the hallway and pushed on a section of wall. It turned, like a hidden pa.s.sage from some mystery novel. Sure enough, behind the wall, a stairwell awaited me. As I stood there, Tiny bolted from her room and scurried down the pa.s.sage.
"Okay, let's go," I said. Anne and Mary gaped at me. Lucy was shaking to the point she could barely stand. "Let's go," I repeated.
"No, miss. We go somewhere else. You have to hurry before they get here. Please!"
I knew at best they'd be injured if they were found; at worst they'd die. I couldn't bear them being hurt. Maybe I was a little c.o.c.ky, but if Maxon had gone out of his way to do everything he'd done thus far, maybe they would matter to him if they mattered to me. Even if we were fighting. Perhaps it was too much generosity to bank on, but I wasn't leaving them here. The fear made me move faster. I grabbed Anne's arm and pushed her in. She stumbled and couldn't stop me as I grabbed Mary and Lucy.
"Move!" I told them.
They started walking, but Anne was protesting the whole way. "They won't let us in, miss! This place is just for the family.... They'll just make us leave!" But I didn't care what she said. Whatever their hiding place was, there was no way it would be as safe as wherever the royal family was staying.
The stairwell was lit every few yards, but even so I nearly fell a few times in my haste to move. My mind was blinded with worry. How far had the rebels penetrated before? Did they know these pathways to safety existed? Lucy was half-paralyzed, and I tugged her down to keep us together.
I couldn't tell how long it took for us to reach the bottom, but finally the tiny pathway opened up to a man-made cavern. I could see other stairways and other girls, everyone running behind what looked to be a two-foot-thick door. We ran up to our safe place.
"Thank you for delivering this girl. You can leave," a guard said to my maids.